“I can barely hear you. I’m having a really bad day.”
Those were pretty much the first words out of the mouth of Huey Lewis at the onset of our interview. He was having a particularly tough morning as he continues to manage Meniere’s disease, an ailment that has damaged his hearing and left him unable to perform.
This wasn’t my first time interacting with Lewis. He was a big part of the book I wrote about the music of the ’80s. At the time, I couldn’t believe my luck to score the opportunity to talk with him. Certainly, a guy who has sold more than 30 million albums and churned out a dozen Top 10 singles didn’t need the publicity that would come from my humble project. From my perspective, being able to promote an interview with him on the book jacket was an immeasurable boost for me. I was forever indebted.
Now I found myself asking him if he wanted to cancel; considering that he had already done so much for me, it didn’t seem right to ask him to participate in the midst of his discomfort. But being the professional that he is, he decided we’d give it a try. After all, he has an outstanding new album that deserves promotion. Weather stands as an equal to anything in the band’s catalog and, in a fairer world, would be an exciting new beginning as the News’ first album of original material in almost two decades.
Instead, considering Lewis’ health, it is likely to be the last recorded output of this band.
“I don’t know if it’s a summation of what we’ve done or not,” Lewis says when asked if he thought of Weather as emblematic of everything that he and the News have come to represent. “But I think it’s as good as anything we’ve done and it’s among our best work. And that was the deal. It wouldn’t be worth releasing if we weren’t proud of it.”
He’s right. Over the course of seven songs, Lewis and the band (including Johnny Colla, Bill Gibson and Sean Hopper, who have all been with the group since its self-titled debut in 1980, along with newer members John Pierce, Stef Burns, Johnnie Bamont, Marvin McFadden and Rob Sudduth) sound as vital as ever. They tackle high-energy rhythm and blues, swaggering funk, soulful balladry and, on the album’s introductory single “Her Love Is Killing Me,” something that seems to combine all of the above into a sound that could only be described as Newsian; it would have certainly produced another top hit had they released it back in the day.
It was an album a decade in the making, a leisurely effort from a band no longer on the album release hamster wheel that had the privilege of making music whenever the mood struck.
“Obviously the world wasn’t waiting for another Huey Lewis and the News record,” Lewis says with characteristic humility. “But as a storyteller, you need a new story to tell now and then. We were playing 75 shows a year which, with travel, that’s a lot of days. But when we had time and when we had an idea, we’d go into the studio and record it. We’re not the most prolific bunch in the world, but we did finally get seven things over a 10-year period.
“And then my hearing collapsed. We waited a year to see if it would get any better. It hasn’t and it’s been two years now. So we thought we might as well share the new stuff with our fans.”
Lewis has been dealing with Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear, since the era of his greatest success, when the News’ 1983 album Sports sold seven million albums and made the band one of the biggest in the world. By the late ’80s, Lewis had lost nearly all of the hearing in his right ear. But it didn’t stop his recording and touring schedule as he learned to cope with it.
But in January 2018, the hearing in his left ear faded before a show in Dallas. Without the ability to find his pitch, he was, essentially, unable to sing. Touring stopped as Lewis began to search for answers and seek different treatment options. He now is prone to long stretches of near-deafness and, just as unpredictably, stretches when he can hear enough to function in conversation with others.
Meanwhile, the recordings that would eventually comprise Weather (News, Sports, and now Weather, get it?) were sitting in the can. Produced by the band, the songs received a polish from veteran mixer Bob Clearmountain during a stretch when the Meniere’s let up enough for Lewis to hear the results.
Knowing Lewis’ condition, one might expect a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of record. But remember that these songs were all written and recorded before the bleakest hours had set in. And Lewis’ gift has always been the ability to make people feel good with his songwriting and performing talents, not to mention his knack for crafting one-liners that both make you chuckle and hit to the heart of the situation within the song. Case in point: When he stresses the drastic differences between his paramour and him on “Remind Me Why I Love You Again,” he sings, “Thank God we got a Sleep Number bed.”
As far as the way Weather seems to touch all the bases in the band’s repertoire, Lewis says that it wasn’t planned that way.
“We’ve always kind of been all over the map,” he explains. “And I suppose that’s a detriment to some extent in that we kind of move around a little bit. You just write the songs that come into your head. The song tells you how it wants to sound. I know it sounds a little hearts and flowers, but you listen to the song and the song tells you how it wants to be produced.”
Most surprising of all on Weather might be the closing track, “One Of The Boys,” which finds the band dabbling smoothly in country music. “I had lunch with the great record producer Dave Cobb, and he asked me to write a song for Willie Nelson,” Lewis says of the song’s origins. “He was going to produce Willie’s record. I was flattered, but I thought it was presumptuous. I’m going to write a song for Wille Nelson?
“But I had this idea like three weeks later and it came as a complete idea. So we demoed it up and that was it. I sent it to Dave who loved it but didn’t get the gig. I think it was our drummer Bill Gibson who said, ‘You know, I think we should do it.’ I thought, why not? Curiously enough, I had written the song thinking it was for Willie. But when I finished the song and I started thinking about us doing it, I was listening to it and I realized it was my life story.”
Lewis also attributes such genre-hopping to the chemistry that the News has honed and perfected over the years.
“We really are a band,” he says, eager to share any praise for the record with his cohorts. “Shoot, we’ve been together for 40 years now. And we make our own records in our own little studio. We really know each other’s strengths and weaknesses at this point. We all know what we’re trying to do. It’s shorthand the way we work. We all know the same things. It’s a very comfortable situation.”
As a songwriter, Lewis’ self-deprecation has always been one of his most endearing qualities; it’s no accident that “Hip To Be Square” was one of the band’s biggest hits. He also realizes that he’s fortunate in a way that the band’s finest songs have always seemed both out of time and timeless all at once.
“We started in the late ’70s prior to MTV,” he explains. “And I was always of a mind to write timeless music if you could. My father was a jazzer and I kind of came from that a little bit, in that you need to write songs that relate to everybody. And we did that. Interestingly, a lot of our songs that were written in our late 20s and early 30s are actually more appropriate for people in their 50s and 60s. And I don’t know why that is, to be honest, but it’s true.”
Heart And Soul And Faith
Many of those fans who have stayed with Lewis probably are dealing with the same bittersweet feelings about Weather as I was as I spoke with him. On the one hand, those fans will get to listen to a wonderful new album from the band. But they are likely hearing lines from Weather like “Do you remember not so long ago/When all we had was time?” or “Now I’m trying to live my life minute by minute and day by day,” written while Lewis was still performing, as eerily prophetic of what was to come.
Lewis is as amazed by this phenomenon as anybody. “Songs can be about anything,” he says. “They don’t necessarily have to be change-the-world stuff, or important, or anything. But they have to be true. And these songs written before my hearing loss now kind of ring a little truer somehow.”
Taken away from the context of his illness, many of the songs on Weather espouse a positive outlook towards the passing of time as Lewis seems to be reassuring his longtime fans dealing with aging themselves. As it turns out, the connection that he shares with his fans has proven stronger than he could have imagined, as evidenced by the outpouring of support he received once the world learned of his problems with Meniere’s.
“The fans have been amazing through all this,” Lewis professes. “Normally, before two years ago, we were just in our own productive world trying to write songs and record them and do shows. Just busy, busy, busy – not a lot of time to reflect on what the music means to people or what sort of impact we may have had or any of that.
“But this hearing loss thing for me, now that we can’t work, has given me pause and it’s given me time to reflect. And there’s been an outpouring of empathy from our fans and so on. I’m amazed and gratified at how wonderful the fans are and how our music has really touched them. You don’t necessarily realize that when you’re in the midst of it. But it’s very touching, actually.”
How typical of Lewis, in the midst of a rough hearing day, dealing with an ill-timed interview, to espouse such warm, uplifting sentiments. As I hung up, I found myself hoping that this wouldn’t be our last chat; that he would battle back against Meniere’s to the extent that he would be back with something else to promote, a new album or tour. That he would live up to the lines he sings so powerfully in “One Of The Boys” – “Though I ain’t getting any younger/I’m far from done.”